Software: Why hiring professional software engineers might have been a good idea #IowaCaucus

Oh my:

It wasn’t so much that the new app that the Iowa Democratic Party had planned to use to report its caucus results didn’t work. It was that people were struggling to even log in or download it in the first place. After all, there had never been any app-specific training for his many precinct chairs.

No training? This points to a lack of common sense and systems analysis at the start of the project. How was this missed?

Further, they likely had not created use cases, which would have caught the next set of failures.

So last Thursday Mr. Bagniewski, the chairman of the Democratic Party in Polk County, Iowa’s most populous, decided to scrap the app entirely, instructing his precinct chairs to simply call in the caucus results as they had always done.

The only problem was, when the time came during Monday’s caucuses, those precinct chairs could not connect with party leaders via phone. Mr. Bagniewski instructed his executive director to take pictures of the results with her smartphone and drive over to the Iowa Democratic Party headquarters to deliver them in person. She was turned away without explanation, he said.

Source: ‘A Systemwide Disaster’: How the Iowa Caucuses Melted Down – DNyuz

I live in the state that featured Cover Oregon[1], a $450 million health exchange that never enrolled a single individual subscriber. It was a complete failure. Healthcare.gov received most of the media attention concerning large government failed software projects but several state projects also failed.

Both health exchange fiascos – and the Iowa Caucus disaster – point to over reliance on software and an assumption that more tech is always better. Tech can make things better, but only when qualified people are involved in all aspects of the project.

Update – my guess was correct says the NY Times:

Shadow was also handicapped by its own lack of coding know-how, according to people familiar with the company. Few of its employees had worked on major tech projects, and many of its engineers were relatively inexperienced.

Only 25% of precinct  chairs were able to successfully install the app. Colossal failure. The system relied, in part, on “security by obscurity”, which never works.

Update: “They” have quite a history with  failed software development. The Associated Press said it could not name a winner of the Iowa Democratic Party Caucuses.

The Iowa Caucus fiasco points at organizational and leadership failures by the Iowa Party (but also including other states that intended to use this same app), and the use of a new software technology company that is driven by ideology rather than engineering. Their tech job postings (as of 2/4/2020) do not appear to require college level training. All aspects – from the software company to the lack of training at the precincts suggest poor leadership and an unskilled implementation team.

From CNN:

Shadow’s background is primarily in voter-contact technologies such as text messaging, the official said, not app development.
“Our impression was they don’t do software development, to be honest,” the official said. “It was surprising to see them in all of this, because it seemed like their main work was more like organizing and get out out the vote through technology services. Our impression from some conversations with them was that that was not their area of expertise.”
A review of the company’s staff on LinkedIn appears to bolster the claim. Of 10 employees who self-identified as working for Shadow, only its chief technology officer, Krista Davis, listed any significant programming experience.
Stunning. Incompetence in spades.

Notes

[1] In 2013, Cover Oregon, like HealthCare.gov, launched to much fanfare. Cover Oregon, however, never worked.  In November, at the same time that I received an incorrect diagnosis of a possible tumor (there was none), we were informed our pre-ACA health insurance policy was being canceled. It was even labeled “Silver” and had been designed to match the upcoming ACA policies. However, CMMS was changing the rules for ACA insurance right up to the launch date and the existing policy no longer qualified. I was on the phone, every day, for 3 weeks – and on hold for hours never getting through to anyone – trying to get a new insurance policy. We eventually signed a new policy the day before the government announced it would grandfather existing policies and we could have continued with what we had.